1913 Mercer Raceabout
December 17, 2007 7:24 AM
In 1909, the Roebling brothers, already renowned for their patriarch’s Brooklyn Bridge design, purchased a car manufacturing concern in New Jersey, changing its name to Mercer after the county where it was located. They enlisted Finley Robinson Porter to achieve their vision of creating a dual purpose sporting vehicle that could dominate the race track and the road, and the Raceabout first hit the streets in 1910.
The Raceabout was one of the most advanced cars of its time. In an era when most sports cars utilized huge engines, the Raceabout had a much smaller engine in a relatively light chassis, which many describe as little more than a hood, two bucket seats and a 25-gallon gas tank. Mercer guaranteed that the vehicle would reach 70 mph, a miracle in a time when 50 was terrifying. And you could drive the Raceabout out of the showroom, easily remove fenders, running boards and gas-powered lamps, to defeat cars with much larger engines on the track. Raceabouts swept five of six major American races in 1911, and before long, every great race car driver of the day was sitting behind the wheel of a Mercer.
The Raceabout’s 300-cubic inch inline four-cylinder T-head engine has massive 2 ¼-inch valves with dual ignition from its magneto. With high compression pistons and high lift cams, the engine outputs around 30 hp at 1900 rpm by formula, though by today’s standards, output is more like 100, with lots of low end torque. The T-head was mated to a beautifully engineered Brown & Lipe 4-speed gearbox, with a fully mechanical multiple disc clutch. This in a time when most vehicles had only three speeds and slippery leather cone clutches. Jay claims that the car shifts as smoothly as a contemporary sports car, and can achieve speeds of 100 mph, driving easily on the freeway.
Although its direct steering offers pinpoint accuracy, driving the Mercer is not for the faint at heart. Cart-sprung with manually dampened Hartford shock absorbers, the Raceabout offers a bit of a rough ride by today’s standards, but the vibrations even out once it’s under way. The drive unit is set low in a steel ladder-type chassis to maintain its low slung center of gravity, making the car almost impossible to flip. Despite a lot of brass, form follows function in the car’s design. There’s no self-starter, no body, no top and no windscreen, though some were fitted with a monocle windshield.
Sadly, the Roebling family was no stranger to tragedy. When Washington Roebling went down with the Titanic, Mercer soon followed suit. Back in the day, the Raceabout’s rival on the race track was the bigger, heavier Stutz Bearcat. Today, the Raceabout fetches four and five times more than the Stutz, and has been bought at auction for prices in excess of $1 million, making it possibly the most desirable Brass Era car built in pre-World War I America.